KOFFIA 11 – The Man Standing Next

On 26 October 1979 the Director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) assassinated Park Chung-Hee, who had seized control of South Korea in a military coup in 1961 and ruled as President from 1963-1979. The Man Standing Next [Namsanui Bujangdeul] (2020) is a fictionalised dramatisation of the 40 days leading up to the assassination, based on the novel of the same name by Kim Choong-sik (initially serialised in a newspaper from 1990-1992) and incorporating additional details which weren’t made public until 2005 (or possibly later – I’ve only been able to conduct a cursory search of the relevant history). Some of the names used in the film don’t appear to match the real names of those involved – I’d hazard a guess that they have been deliberately changed to emphasise the speculative nature of the story, but it’s possible this is simply a case of different transliteration conventions. Whatever the case, I’ll stick to using the names from the film.

The movie opens on the night of the assassination as KCIA Director Kim Kyu-pyeong (Lee Byung-hun) consults with two of his men as he prepares to enter the building, before flashing back to the US congressional Koreagate hearings 40 days earlier. Former KCIA Director Park Yong-kak (Kwak Do-won), in exile since being fired for carrying out orders which were embarrassing to President Park (Lee Sung-min), has written a tell-all expose about his time with the President’s administration and offers testimony against his government confirming the details of the scandal. Kim is sent to retrieve the manuscript and convince him not to publish. He’s successful, but is warned that he too will be discarded when he becomes inconvenient.

On his return, the precarious nature of Kim’s position becomes increasingly clear due to the growing influence of Kwak Sang-cheon (Lee Hee-Joon), the President’s Chief Bodyguard, an arrogant attack dog who lacks all subtlety and reinforces the President’s worst urges in responding to political unrest with disproportionate brute force. He has the support of Jeon Du-hyeok (Seo Hyun-woo), a military commander who is quite happy to go along with the suggestion that driving tanks over a couple of million protestors is a reasonable action to take.

Kim has a far more nuanced view of what South Korea can get away with on the world stage and, although far from guiltless in authorising and carrying out brutal suppression tactics in his time, feels that the ideals behind the coup which brought Park to power have become lost in his increasing desperation to hold onto power. He has also been made aware – thanks to former KCIA Director Park, lobbyist Deborah Shim (Kim So-jin) and the US Ambassador (Jerry Rector) – that the CIA has uncovered the existence of an individual known as Iago who is circumventing the KCIA to siphon government money into a Swiss bank account and carry out a separate agenda, presumably directly sanctioned by the President. In the light of escalating doubts about the President and his advisors, increasing evidence that the KCIA is compromised, and some none-too-subtle hints about the CIA’s own plans, Kim finds himself brought to the trigger point.

The film takes a sympathetic viewpoint towards Kim’s motivations without providing a moral whitewash – he instructs a Professor taken for interrogation to consider himself dead and tell all, and in the course of his political manoeuvrings it becomes expedient for him to orchestrate the assassination of his friend, former KCIA Director Park Yong-kak, however reluctantly. There have been many speculations about the historical figure’s motives for carrying out the assassination and whether it was premeditated or an impulsive act. Writer/director Woo Min-ho does an exceptional job of weaving each of these theories into his depiction of Kim’s personal journey: he gradually comes to see the necessity of taking action, but plans and implements the assassination in a rush on the night in order to avoid information leakage; jealousy of Kwak’s growing influence is a factor, but concern about the perilous nature of his influence is a greater consideration; he is shown to be aware of the CIA’s attention but not operating as their puppet; he does appear to have a genuine concern for democracy, and information which has come to light more recently tends to support this as a genuine motivation rather than a self-justification offered at his trial.

Woo Min-ho has assembled a talented cast, but the success of the movie relies on Lee Byung-hun’s central performance. Previously appearing as The Bad in The Good the Bad the Weird (2008) and the T-1000 in Terminator Genisys (2015), Lee Byung-hun’s performance deservedly won him the Best Actor award from the Chunsa Film Art Awards (founded by the Korea Film Directors’ Society) and the Baeksang Arts Awards (South Korea’s equivalent to the Academy Awards). The Chunsa Awards also rewarded Lee Sung-min with the Best Supporting Actor Award for his role as the President. The Man Standing Next has also been selected as the South Korean entry for the Best International Feature Film at next year’s Academy Awards – and although I don’t generally have much faith in the willingness of the Academy Awards judges to value quality over marketing and behind-the-scenes lobbying, this film is certainly a worthy nominee.

One thought on “KOFFIA 11 – The Man Standing Next

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s